Trump controversy setting up race as key 2020 issue
Racial discrimination has been hardwired into the US from its very foundation. The earliest founding fathers, the Puritans in New England, believed that they were superior to everyone else, including Native Americans.
Yet what is not always understood is that racism and racist ideas were deployed to justify discrimination. In the US, racism did not lead to slavery; it was the other way around. Racist ideas were used to justify slavery, which was key to huge wealth and profits. This approach was imported from Europe. As well as slavery, blacks then suffered from segregation, Jim Crow and voter suppression, all designed to ensure white supremacy.
Many racists define racism in a way that their actions and statements do not appear racist. In the US, the fight is still on to agree on what is actually racist. Some of those who see blacks as inferior still do not view this as a racist thought. Most ignore the dramatic racial inequalities, where blacks, who constitute 13 percent of the US population, have a seventh of the average wealth of a white American household.
President Donald Trump is the latest iteration of this stage of race politics in the US. He relies on racism, which he too denies, to underpin the dominance of wealthy white business in the country. He has a long pre-presidential track record of doing so with racist comments aplenty. He was an early endorser of “birtherism,” the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the US. As a presidential candidate, he pledged to impose a total ban on Muslims entering the US. Trump has also lurched into anti-Semitism. Who can forget the way in which he referred to “fine people on both sides” about a neo-Nazi march in Virginia in 2017? The neo-Nazis were chanting things like “Jews will not replace us.” He has a track record of racist comments about Native Americans as well as a string of anti-Semitic comments.
One has to wonder what might convince Trump supporters that their man in the White House might be racist. Nearly 90 percent of them, according to a recent opinion poll, believe that he is not. Nationally, 50 percent say he is while 35 percent disagree — a divide that has not changed since February or since the rally this month where Trump fans were screaming “send her back” about Ilhan Omar, the congresswoman from Minneapolis.
Trump fueled this latest chapter in American racist politics by attacking Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen of color; gender racism against black women of the worst kind. He claimed they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world.” Trump called for them to go back to the “broken and crime-infested” countries they came from. He followed this up with a tweet on Sunday: “I don’t believe the four congresswomen are capable of loving our country. They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said.”
Racists are using support for Israel as cover to try and hide behind their own bigoted views about other communities
This tweet exhibits another trend. Racists are using support for Israel as cover to try and hide behind their own bigoted views about other communities. Other than Trump, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, is a leading member of this club, alongside Narendra Modi of India, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Matteo Salvini in Italy.
What if the US was to “send them back?” What if we were, for the sake of argument, to humor this racist, bigoted worldview that Trump has energized? Firstly of course, send them back to where? For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, this would be the Bronx, her home. Secondly, Rashida Tlaib would only be too happy if this meant that an American president was endorsing the Palestinian right of return and she could exercise her inalienable right to return if she wanted to. In any event, her home is in Michigan. Finally, Trump would be deporting millions of Americans all over the world and arguably even his own wife.
Trump did not stop there, as he also falsely accused Omar of saying that Al-Qaeda made her proud. Aside from the fact that she has never praised Al-Qaeda — a verifiable fact — this places the congresswoman at very serious risk to her life.
Trump did not make a gaffe. This is deliberate baiting of the anti-racist community, as well as the Democrats using race for political gain. One must ignore his rather half-hearted protest that he was not “particularly happy” with their chant at the rally in North Carolina. He waited 13 seconds before resuming his address to the chanting mob.
This is setting up race and immigration to be the issue of the 2020 campaign. He is reinforcing the devoted support of Republican voters. He cares little for the downsides, the way in which he risks losing floating voters, and how it makes it nigh on impossible for friendly allies to hug him close. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was profuse in her support of the four congresswomen.
Trump counts, perhaps with too much confidence, on two factors. Firstly, while undecided voters might not feel comfortable with his racism, they will appreciate his self-declared economic success and the growth in jobs. Secondly, as much as European and other allies might express outrage, all of them still crave close political, economic and security ties with the US. They cannot afford to ditch their ties to Washington.
At some point a line must be drawn. Such outright racism is not just appalling but deeply damaging. It was only in March that a white supremacist gunned down 51 Muslims in Christchurch. Further violence and counterviolence is only becoming more likely whilst this poisonous and racist rhetoric continues. Trump should be playing a role in ending the US’ dark history of racism and racist ideas, not normalizing and promoting it for his own ends.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech